Night March to Maol Bhuidhe

Posted by on Jan 26, 2010 in Bothy, Northwest Highlands | 7 Comments

There’s nothing quite like wandering through wild country by the light of the moon on a winter’s night. I find the experience exhilarating and always wonder why I don’t indulge myself more frequently.

Maol Bhuidhe is one several bothies that provide refuge for travelers through the great wilderness that lies between the Road to the Isles to the South and the Lochcarron road to the North. The sheer emptiness of this country captured my imagination the first time I saw it on a map, but it wasn’t until  last winter that I took my first trip into Maol Bhuidhe using the route marked in blue on the map below. The cycle from Killilan to Iron Lodge was an icy ordeal; the ascent to the bealach between Faochaig and Aonach Bhuidhe on foot was equally tough. The snow was deep and our packs were dreadfully heavy, laden with winter mountaineering equipment in addition to the usual charge of food, beer and coal. We arrived at the bothy at 0300 in such a fatigued state that our climbing equipment remained unused.

We didn’t expect to meet another soul that weekend but we were in for a surprise. The Maintenance Officer (MO), a sprightly septuagenarian who thought nothing of walking from his house in Inverness to carry out some work on the roof of the Kearvaig bothy near Cape Wrath, appeared early on Saturday afternoon. He spent much of the day cleaving burnable chunks from a large piece of bogwood using a splitting maul and a hammer. Come evening time he regaled us with stories of his unorthodox lifestyle, which involved spending 150 nights a year in bothies. This was a wonderful revelation to me; that in the 21st century it is still possible to effectively live the life of a vagrant, travelling the length of the country on foot and spending every night in a bothy or doss.

We remembered many of the MO’s stories as we sat round the bothy fire on Saturday night. The reason that he was able to devote so much time to the bothying life was because he had no wife.  He told us in his broad Lancastrian accent how his first two wives had deserted him (‘fooked off’) then went on to tell us about his third wife, who he had really liked. The tale had the makings of a great joke, but ended in tragedy rather than punchline.  The third wife had died after a year and instead of finding another he answered the call of the wild.

View east from Maol Bhuidhe

Detractors of bothies often complain about mice. Such whingers would find no cause for complaint at Maol Bhuidhe. The MO happened upon a couple of adders dozing in the sunshine one day as he walked in from Bendronaig. He scooped them up into his bag and released them in the vicinity of the bothy. He maintained that they have kept the mice at bay ever since.

 he MO has made a number of improvements to the bothy in the time it has been under his stewardship, he was justly proud of the wood paneling and the smoke-free fireplace, but his greatest achievement was the installation of a swee. You may not have heard of swees and this is entirely understandable, a quick web search  didn’t turn up a single use of the word in this context so I am pleased to be keeping the word alive. A swee is a pot stand on an arm, mounted  on a vertical pipe beside the fire. You place your cooking pot on the swee then swing it over the fire to boil up your water. The MO has been inspired by a swee that he had seen in the Oban bothy and had a heavy duty replica fabricated from angle iron by an Inverness blacksmith. After carting this monstrosity all the way to Maol Bhuidhe he found to his dismay that it wasn’t quite the right size and had to carry it all the way back to the smiddy. The second iteration of the swee fitted perfectly and is still in place.

Bendronaig

The MO gave us many tips. The one that lodged in my mind was that he always approached the bothy from Attadale (the red route) rather than as we had from Killilan, so when we planned this year’s visit we decided to try this route, expecting it to take much less time than the blue route. We got a reasonably early start and made it to Bendronaig in about 2 hours. We left our bikes there and set off just after 2200, fully expecting to arrive at Maol Bhuidhe by midnight. As we approached Loch Calavie an extremely strange noise wafted to our ears, an eerie swooshing noise that defied explanation. It sounded like a jet fighter, the quiet part as the plane approaches, petering out before the louder portion as the plane passes overhead. The overall impression was of some form of monstrous beast, respiring in its lair. It turned out to be coming from the frozen loch, as the burns transported meltwater into the loch it set up stresses in the ice and the noises that had transfixed us were presumably the result of these stresses dissipating through the icepack.

Cloud billows from the flanks of Lurg Mhor over the ice of Loch Calavie, silent in the daylight

Beyond the loch the last 2.5 km to the bothy were on untracked country, hard walking through peat hags and hummocky moraines. Guided by the coires of Aonach Bhuidhe we picked a line and struck off, the frosted grass rusting and sparkling like tinsel beneath our boots.  As the time crept closer to 0200 we grew tired and I could feel my brain slowing down. Several times I was convinced I could see the loch in the distance but it turned out to be a small snowpatch right in front of me. The bothy did not give up easily, the loch and river both putting up a struggle. One of our party suffered a dismaying double immersion in an ice cold chest-deep bog. When we finally arrived at Maol Bhuidhe bothy at 0215 on Saturday morning, after a 6’45” journey and three hours after my usual bedtime, I was reminded exactly why I don’t schedule a moonlit wander every weekend.

A couple of snaps from the road home through Glen Sheil. The Five Sisters of Kintail above and I think Beinn Fhada below.

7 Comments

  1. Craig W
    January 27, 2010

    Lovely. My only visit to that bothy was on a trek through the NW Highlands from Ardnamurchan to Cape Wrath. Approached from Kintail and the Falls of Glomach, and exited towards Golden Valley and Gerry's hostel near Achnashellach. I was very impressed with the general area, one that I had not previously considered visiting. A great feeling of space. Have been to Bernais a few times, but still

    Reply
  2. Gavin Macfie
    January 27, 2010

    Many of the visitors to Maol Bhuidhe are bound for Cape Wrath. I'm beginning to feel compelled to undertake a similar journey myself. I wonder if I could make it from Inverness to Cape Wrath over a few long weekends, using public transport to return home between legs?

    Aonach Bhuidhe was an easy ascent at the weekend, many of the peat hags were hidden beneath a smooth pavement of

    Reply
  3. blueskyscotland
    January 28, 2010

    Got the gist of this on UKC during the week.
    Epic stuff Gavin..!

    PS: I can`t post comments from Firefox no matter what I do.Had to use Explorer to post this.
    Anybody else have this problem ?

    Reply
  4. Gavin Macfie
    January 29, 2010

    Is it just my site that your have this firefox commenting problem with, or is it a general blogspot problem?

    Reply
  5. swanscot
    May 27, 2011

    Inverness to Cape Wrath? Now that sounds like a good trail. Might copy your idea there.

    Reply
  6. charles everett
    January 31, 2017

    fabulous write up and glorious pictures. Though I’ve stayed a couple of nights at Ben Dronaig with a couple of dogs, in Sept 2011 for Lurg Mor and B.a’C.S, my third last and second last Munros, not yet got out to Maol Bhuidhe. Difficult to decide which route is best but looks like it pays to have bikes.

    Reply
    • Gavin
      January 31, 2017

      Hi Charles,

      I recommend Glen Elchaig by bike as the easiest approach. The others are more arduous.

      G

      Reply

Leave a Reply